Examination of Wooden Tomb Models

Hi everyone! This is Alexis North, and I’m the project conservator at the Penn Museum working on the Egyptian storage move project, which has been referenced here on the blog a few times. I wanted to give a brief introduction on one of the projects I have been working on most recently in the Artifact Lab.

We recently received several new objects in the Artifact Lab. They are a collection of painted wooden models, depicting various aspects of daily life, which date to the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom (2130-1784 BCE). Many of the models we have were excavated by Sir Flinders Petrie and the British School of Archaeology, through excavations the University of Pennsylvania supported.

Photo of tomb models on display, prior to deinstallation.

Photo of tomb models on display, prior to deinstallation.

These models had been on display in our Egyptian Daily Life gallery for quite a long time. However, due to the vibrations caused by the construction going on right outside the museum, the entire case had to be deinstalled and the objects moved for their protection. The models have very fragile painted surfaces, and are made of multiple pieces which could separate, fall over, and be damaged if exposed to vibrations within the case. They also in most cases have not be examined by a conservator since their acquisition.

Therefore they were all brought into the Artifact Lab for documentation and treatment. We started by photographing all the individual pieces, and assessing the condition of the painted surfaces. Many of the models have actively lifting and flaking paint, and the horizontal surfaces are also quite dirty.

The model most in need of treatment is this boat:

Detail of E14260.1, boat model, before deinstallation.

Detail of E14260.1, boat model, before deinstallation.

Boats have a lot of significance in ancient Egyptian culture and religion. They were the primary means of long-distance travel along the Nile, and the Egyptians believed that the gods traveled across the sky and through the underworld on boats. Boats were also used for fishing. This model depicts a transport boat, with oarsmen, a mast and rudder, and a canopy painted in a cowskin pattern where the tomb owner would have been represented sitting and enjoying his travels.

This model has some of the most serious flaking paint and discoloration, especially on the top and sides of the boat:

Detail of lost and lifting paint on top of boat, and grimy surface.

Detail of lost and lifting paint on top of boat, and grimy surface.

I began treating this model by taking detailed photos of the surface, then using those images to map different condition issues. Then I chose different treatment materials and techniques which work best for those issues.

Come back for the next post to see more about what we learned from examining this model, and how I chose to treat it. See you soon!



Fleming, S. (1980). The Egyptian mummy: Secrets and science. University of Pennsylvania.

Taylor, John H. (2001). Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. The University of Chicago Press.


Alexis North is the Project Conservator for the Egyptian Storage Move Project, Penn Museum.